Sunday, 7 February 2010

Poverty and Progress....

Born on this day February 7th back in 1812 a certain Charles John Huffam Dickens was born. Better known to us all by the simple name of Charles Dickens he went on to write some of the most famous novels within English Literature that were to have profound effects on the social and moral fabric of Britain under Queen Victoria and usher in reforms that we still benefit from today.

Charles was the second of eight children to John Dickens (1786–1851), a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, and his wife Elizabeth Dickens (1789–1863). The Dickens family moved to London in 1814 and two years later to Chatham, Kent, where Charles spent the early years of his childhood. Due to financial difficulties they moved back to London in 1822, where they settled in Camden Town, a poor neighbourhood of London.

The defining moment of Dickens's life occurred when he was 12 years old. His father, who had a difficult time managing money and was constantly in debt, was imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor's prison in 1824. Because of this, Charles was withdrawn from school and forced to work in a warehouse that handled 'blacking' or shoe polish to help support the family. This experience left profound psychological and sociological effects on Charles. It gave him a firsthand acquaintance with poverty and made him the most vigorous and influential voice of the working classes in his age. Many argue this experience was the template for ‘David Copperfield’ my personal favourite of all his novels.

On leaving education his original career began in journalism, reporting on Parliamentary issues and writing in various papers and journals, though today we remember him as the most popular novelist of the Victorian age. Indeed, his name has given us a description of Victorian Britain – Dickensian, commonly invoking images of depressing cities dominated by dark, polluting smoke-stack factories, with underpaid workers living cheek-by-jowl in overcrowded squalour and disease.

So powerful is Dickens's writing that even historians today have come to accept his literary descriptions as objective fact.

But we have to remember that Dickens was a social campaigner as well as a great wordsmith. He used his literary talents to highlight the problems of industrialisation through emotion and exaggeration. Indeed, he was brilliant at it, and his writings did actually change the Victorians' attitudes on issues such as poverty and class inequalities, which most thinking and educated people at the time believed were the immutable condition of humanity and the working out of God's plan.

In fact, though, the factories, for all their ills, represented a step up for the working poor. The alternative was a life of equally long hours and backbreaking physical labour on the land in rain, sleet, snow or baking heat, a life made worse by the certainty of periodic crop failure, starvation and disease. The poor were not forced into urban factories: rather, they knew (in the words of William Barnes's poem) that they could 'make money faster, in the air of darkened towns' and that Linden Lea was not the rural idyll that it was painted.

It was, of course, a time of revolution, an industrial revolution, in which things changed rapidly: with shoddy, functional buildings thrown up with little knowledge or understanding of the social consequences. How could anyone know and how can we judge objectively now with the benefit of hindsight? But before long, standards improved, hygiene and sanitation became standard, and the wealth generated by the new industries allowed many of even the poorest to rise out of the 'Dickensian' world.

In 1834, still a newspaper reporter; he adopted the soon to be famous pseudonym Boz. Dickens's first book, a collection of stories titled Sketches by Boz, was published in 1836. In the same year he married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of the editor of the Evening Chronicle. Together they had 10 children before they separated in 1858.

Although Dickens's main profession was as a novelist, he continued his journalistic work until the end of his life, editing The Daily News, Household Words, and All the Year Round. His connections to various magazines and newspapers giving him the opportunity to publish his own fiction right from the beginning of his career.

Charles Dickens died at home aged 58 on June 9, 1870 after suffering a stroke. Contrary to his wish to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, he was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on his tomb reads:

"He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world."


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